Emotional Stress During Pregnancy (And 17 Ways to Relieve It)

Updated on September 12, 2018
Susana S profile image

Susana has a background in psychology and counseling and a special interest in mental health during pregnancy.

Constant Stress in Pregnancy Can have Negative Effects for Mom and Baby. Avoid that by Making Some Minor Changes to Your Lifestyle
Constant Stress in Pregnancy Can have Negative Effects for Mom and Baby. Avoid that by Making Some Minor Changes to Your Lifestyle

I Never Knew Pregnancy Would be SO Stressful!

You don't need me to tell you that life can be stressful. From everyday hassles to traumatic natural disasters, stress is an unavoidable part of life. With all the changes going on, pregnancy is a time when stress can be at an all-time high—especially emotional stress.

The level of impact this emotional stress might have on your pregnancy and your baby depends a great deal on what you do to de-stress. That's why it's essential to learn coping strategies to effectively manage the many emotional and psychological stresses you'll experience when you’re pregnant. Taking just a few of the suggestions below and practicing them for a couple of weeks can make a huge difference to how stressed you feel.

It takes a few weeks for new activities to become habits, so give yourself plenty of time for the changes to take effect.

What's Covered in This Article?

  • Common Causes of Stress in Pregnancy
  • Physical & Emotional Symptoms
  • The Role of Cortisol
  • The Effects on Baby
  • Miscarriage & Stress
  • Pregnancy Stress & Relationships
  • 17 Ways to Deal with Pregnancy Stress

What Causes Stress in Pregnancy?

Pregnancy is a time of tremendous physical, emotional and relationship changes. Even though most of us think of pregnancy as a time filled with love and joy, the reality is that any change comes with a lot of stress. When you're pregnant your body has the challenge of growing a whole new person. That is stressful in itself and it comes with many emotional and psychological side effects too.

Your relationship with your partner has to adjust to welcoming a new family member and defining your new role as parents. You may have gotten on fine before pregnancy, but now you find you're arguing more and snapping at each other.

During pregnancy, every emotion is felt more intensely, and you might find yourself crying a lot more than normal and then worrying if your crying is having a negative effect on your baby. (More about that in a minute).

By knowing what these pregnancy-specific sources of stress are, you have a better chance of preparing yourself for what lies ahead.

Here are the most common causes of pregnancy stress.

1. Pregnancy Symptoms and Complications

Tiring morning sickness, a high-risk pregnancy or history of prior miscarriages can add a burden to your current pregnancy and make it more stressful. Even "normal" pregnancy symptoms often result in increased stress levels.

2. More Intense Emotions

In your everyday life prior to pregnancy you may have felt on top of things and coping. That can all change with the massive flood of pregnancy hormones. You may find yourself crying or getting angry at the slightest things. You may be up one minute and down the next and find it hard to get to grips with what's going on. A great deal of emotional stress comes from this part of pregnancy.

Does Crying During Pregnancy Hurt Baby?

One question many moms to have is whether crying causes stress to the baby and can cause harm. The answer to that is no. Crying relieves stress and actually reduces your stress levels. It's good to get those emotions out so cry as often as you feel like it.

3. Relationship Issues

Pregnancy requires your partner to change too. Your need for love, intimacy and reassurance can intensify. It can be very difficult for your partner to understand what you're going through and that can cause friction. If you're a single mum, all the burden of preparation is on you.

4. Work and Money

Most women have to juggle a lot in pregnancy. We try to maintain our work performance, while struggling with pregnancy symptoms and taking care of the household all at the same time. It's not surprising that this can become overwhelming.

5. Family Problems

Pregnancy is a time when every little bit of outside help can ease the burden. When family support is lacking, other causes of stress during pregnancy can become too much to cope with.

5. Prior Mental Health Issues

Women who have experienced anxiety, depression, PTSD, or similar mental health issues in the past can find that the intense emotional experience of pregnancy is overwhelming.

Pregnancy Stress Symptoms

Since pregnancy affects both your body and mind, the signs of stress also can come in the form of physical, emotional, psychological, and behavioral symptoms.

Some symptoms of stress overlap with pregnancy symptoms and, due to the compound effect, can make your pregnancy more difficult.

Physical Symptoms of Stress in Pregnancy

  • Headaches
  • Neck pain and shoulder pain
  • Heartburn and indigestion
  • High blood pressure
  • Tiredness
  • Insomnia
  • Muscle tension or jitters
  • Decreased sex drive

Psychological and Emotional Signs of Stress During Pregnancy

  • Nervousness
  • Feeling anxious
  • Constant worry and fear
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Irritability, snapping at people
  • Crying a lot
  • Overeating or not eating enough
  • Increased likelihood of consuming alcohol, nicotine, or other addictive substances

It's normal to feel some amount of stress in our day-to-day lives. Stress motivates us to adjust to new situations and develop new coping strategies to face life's problems.

But, when you are under stress for too long it is time to talk about what you’re experiencing with your partner, midwife, a close friend, and/or family member. Especially if any of the symptoms listed above are very intense and last for more than two weeks.

Pregnancy Stress and Cortisol Levels

Cortisol is a hormone secreted by the adrenal glands and it plays an essential role in the way your body responds to stress. In highly stressful situations, cortisol helps your body react quickly to the outside world by raising your blood pressure, speeding up your heartbeat, and making you ready to face the challenge.

However, the problem with modern day stress is that it is usually caused by threats and challenges that cannot be immediately solved. The physical readiness cortisol provides does little to help if your stress is caused by financial problems, relationship issues or workplace pressure. In fact, it causes more problems than it solves.

In pregnancy, there are many sources of stress, and if you are exposed to prolonged and intense stress, high cortisol levels can affect how your baby develops [1].

How Stress During Pregnancy Can Affect Your Baby

Even though we do not fully understand all the different mechanisms that take place when we’re under stress, enough scientific studies suggest that prolonged and intense stress can affect the way a baby develops.

One thing we know for sure is that the stress hormone cortisol reaches your baby’s bloodstream through the placenta.

The additional strain of dealing with traumatic and intense events that in many cases originate before pregnancy can influence your overall health and add to the effects of the stress. Recent evidence suggests that stress, when it is intense and lasts for extended periods, can leave its mark on how your baby’s brain develops.

Again, it's important to note that levels of stress that these studies included catastrophic events like massive fires or hurricanes and not the more moderate levels of stress that you might experience from worrying about the bills or about your relationship.

Stress in Pregnancy and Miscarriage

The reality of pregnancy is that intense hormones and the physical challenges of pregnancy will make you feel stressed at some point. The last thing you need when this happens is to be worrying that your stress might cause you to miscarry. This is why it is essential to make a distinction between self-blaming thoughts and what scientific evidence says about stress and miscarriage [2].

The most frequent cause of miscarriage is the chromosomal abnormalities in early pregnancy. The compounded effects of stress, high cortisol levels, and adverse life situations that lie behind the stress can increase the likelihood of miscarriage. However, the stress levels that lead to miscarriage are not your average everyday stress levels.

Events like the death of a partner, child, or a loved one, tragic disasters, prolonged domestic abuse, rape, or similar life-threatening events and the stress levels they cause are the ones that can increase the likelihood of miscarriage.

Pregnancy Stress and Relationships

Pregnancy is one of the biggest challenges you and your partner will face as a couple. Your relationship no longer involves only the two of you, but now you both have new responsibilities and roles as parents. You might be disappointed to discover your partner has a different understanding and expectations of parenthood, or that he isn’t able to fully understand your needs.

Intense emotions, fears, and uncertainty you might be experiencing in the first trimester likely won’t help to ease the communication between you and your partner even if your relationship is ideal.

Financial problems, a lack of family support or different priorities in life can create a seemingly insurmountable obstacle in your relationship.

The best way to relieve relationship stress during pregnancy is in communication and keeping in mind what really matters: your health and the health of your baby.

17 Ways to Relieve Emotional Stress in Pregnancy

1. Start with Self-care

Self-care is a beginning point in your strategy to cope with pregnancy stress; it is the basis of how you should treat and value yourself. Self-care involves changing the attitude you have toward yourself. It means treating yourself the same way you would a good friend.

The same compassion and understanding you’d give to your best friend when they are in a difficult phase need to be present in how you talk to yourself. If this means taking some time to be alone despite mountains of laundry or screaming kids, you need to do it.

Set aside at least an hour daily and have a compassionate one-on-one with yourself. Self-care has nothing to do with selfishness. It is quite the opposite.

Failing to love yourself and care for your emotional well-being, you have less to share with the important people in your life.

2. Get Enough Rest and Sleep

A good night’s sleep when you’re stressed can be just the thing you need to recuperate and face the challenges with new strength. A good night’s sleep can also make an essential difference in how you feel.

The more rested you are, the less chance of you becoming nervous, snappy or anxious, especially if your early pregnancy is difficult due to morning sickness or worries. Getting a good night’s sleep despite pregnancy stress can be tricky, but it is achievable.

The trick is in establishing a bedtime routine that starts much earlier than your actual bedtime. For example, instead of watching TV, browsing social media, or finishing the housework for the day, take an hour before your bedtime and use that time to enjoy a relaxing activity. Taking a bath, reading, or just spending some time with your partner can help prepare you for sleep.

Since stress and anxiety become particularly apparent once you're in bed and your thoughts start racing, prepare for this in advance. Listen to a meditation or mindfulness tape and let it help you ease into sleep by not allowing your thoughts to go wild.

3. Eat Well and Stay Hydrated

What you eat and drink becomes very important when you are pregnant. Generally, the recommended healthy diet that benefits pregnancy also helps your body fight stress. But one item in particular—water—can help immensely when you’re feeling stressed. Being adequately hydrated also helps your body eliminate the stress hormone cortisol faster. When you drink plenty of water cortisol leaves your body before it can have a negative impact on your body or your pregnancy [3].

Make sure you drink six glasses of water daily spread throughout the day. Hydration is even more vital if you’re fighting morning sickness and vomiting. In this case, replacing the water with some ginger tea that you can sip throughout the day will help.

4. Exercise

When you are under pressure arising from the new pregnancy, relationships, and work, exercise is something that will probably be low on the list of your priorities. But it is worth it to reiterate once more: taking some time to take care of yourself is not selfish. Instead, you are ensuring the best for your baby.

Moderate physical activity is an essential way to keep your body prepared for the challenges of childbirth [4]. Joining a pregnancy aerobics class, starting yoga lessons, or taking a Pilate’s class is a good way for you to connect with other women who are in a similar position. Exercise will help your body start producing more endorphins—the happiness hormones.

But, if you don’t have the time or money, taking an hour for a jog or a walk around the local park each day is enough to get your endorphins running.

5. Try Antenatal Yoga

Pregnancy-tailored yoga classes such as antenatal yoga can help relieve both physical and emotional symptoms of stress. It is also an excellent way to help you prepare your body for the challenges of labor that lie ahead.

If your pregnancy is complication-free, and you’ve practiced yoga before your pregnancy, all you need to practice yoga is an exercise mat.

Some asanas, such as Child Pose or Moon salutation are simple enough for beginners and are thought to be especially beneficial in stress-related situations. Combining the physical side of yoga with mindful breathing can help you to be calm.

6. Become More Mindful

Mindfulness combined with breathing techniques has become an increasingly popular psychologists’ tool to deal with the emotional consequences of stress. Mindfulness can help you refocus on the present moment rather than blaming yourself for what happened in the past or worrying about the future.

To start practicing mindfulness, check out youtube. There are plenty of options to choose from. Mindfulness videos have the added benefit of helping you ease into sleep. You can also integrate simple mindfulness principles into your day-to-day activities by intentionally bringing more awareness to whatever you are doing at the moment. For example, when you’re about to drink a glass of water, focus on how the glass feels in your hand and what the water feels like in your mouth as you take a sip.

7. Relieve Stress with Pregnancy Massage

If there is one thing that comes to mind when thinking about an ideal stress antidote, it’s a soothing massage.

Not only can massage help to relieve muscle and back pain that often accompanies pregnancy, massage can also be a great way to give yourself a relaxing treatment you deserve.

One critical thing to consider when choosing a massage therapist during your pregnancy is to ensure your therapist has experience with an antenatal massage or uses pregnancy-safe massage positions and tables.

In case you are at risk of miscarriage or face another complication in your pregnancy, it’s best to avoid massages unless approved explicitly by your midwife or ob-gyn.

8. Have an Epsom Salt Bath

One well-known home remedy to relieve stress is the use of Epsom salt in baths. It can come to your rescue when you are feeling stressed and overwhelmed by the challenges of pregnancy. Epsom salt contains one potent anti-stress ingredient: Magnesium.

This essential mineral plays a vital role in helping your nervous system adapt to stress and additionally helps relieve muscle tension that often comes with excessive anxiety.

Time your Epsom salt bath an hour or two before bedtime and the relaxing magnesium infused water will help you ease into sleep. Ideally, you should choose warm and not hot water and limit your time in the bath to no more than 20 minutes.

If your midwife or ob-gyn has advised you to avoid sitting baths and to take showers instead, then you can replace the magnesium from the Epsom salts with a pregnancy-safe magnesium spray for a similar effect.

You can learn more about the many benefits of magnesium during pregnancy here.

9. Try Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy is another therapeutic approach that can help reduce moderate levels of stress and anxiety. Aromatherapy relies on essential oils from herbs, such as lavender, chamomile, ylang-ylang, and others to help you de-stress.

However, there is a reason to be careful about aromatherapy while pregnant. Some essential oils can help relieve stress or pregnancy symptoms like morning sickness; others can influence your blood pressure or even trigger contractions. This is why it is essential to work only with a certified aromatherapist who knows you are pregnant.

10. Acupuncture

Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese treatment that involves careful insertion of tiny sterilized needles at specific points in your body to improve the flow of your life force (Chi). Acupuncture sounds painful, but it is entirely pain-free.

It is safe to use during pregnancy, and not only to relieve stress. Acupuncture can help with back pain, morning sickness, or to manage labor pains. As with other treatments, consulting your midwife or ob-gyn before you turn to acupuncture is advised. You should also make sure your acupuncturist knows you are pregnant and is a certified professional experienced in working with pregnant women.

11. Give Reiki a Try

Reiki is an alternative therapy approach originating in Japan that bases its practices on healing through universal life energy. A Reiki therapist works on reducing your stress levels in a relaxing atmosphere by assessing the problem areas in your life force or Ki. During the Reiki session, a therapist places their hands in specific positions over your body. There is little touching and it is done with your clothes on. Many people report feeling incredibly relaxed while receiving Reiki treatment and it is commonly used in a variety of therapeutic settings.

Reiki is entirely safe during pregnancy and will at the very least give you an hour to yourself to completely relax.

12. Rekindle Your Passion

Unless your ob-gyn has specifically advised you not to have sex, sex in pregnancy is perfectly safe for you and the baby. (That is assuming you have any libido!) In fact, full sexual intercourse helps keep your blood pressure in check, stimulates the production of feel-good hormones such as oxytocin, and eases you into sleep. Sex can be an excellent means for you and partner to bond and focus on the present moment rather than on worries about the future. Just figuring out what position works for you now that you’re pregnant can be fun.

If stress and pregnancy symptoms are taking a toll on your sex drive and you don’t feel like having sex, just going out on a romantic date with your partner can help to de-stress. Feeling wanted and loved does wonders for your self-esteem and feeling loved is an ultimate de-stressor.

Try being creative and find an activity you’ll both enjoy away from the usual hassle. If you can’t afford to spend money on dinner at a fancy restaurant, see a movie, or watch the stars on a late night picnic together.

13. Spend a Day with Friends

When it comes to dealing with stress, one thing is certain - if you’re keeping what is stressing you to yourself there is little chance of changing things. If you stay trapped in anxious thoughts about struggling to find new ways to earn money or worrying about being the perfect mom, you'll only end up being more stressed.

Sharing your worries with close friends helps because a good friend can understand you, offer you advice, and most importantly give you a different perspective. Hearing how your friend might deal with what you are facing can help you see that the stress is manageable and that you too have the capacity to overcome it. Enjoying a day out with your friends and doing things you enjoy will remind you of who you really are and make it easier for you to cope with the pregnancy challenges that lie ahead.

14. Ask Friends and Family for Help

Pregnancy is a time when you should not be facing all the stress alone. Pregnancy is not the time for you to be too proud to ask for help or to accept the help offered to you. Stress is a sign that you are in a situation that is stretching your capacities too thin.

The people closest to you, your partner, family or close friends can take the weight off your shoulders at least for a while. Reaching out for help also means admitting you are not entirely in control and this is one of the concessions from which you can only benefit. Even when your partner can’t complete chores perfectly, don’t nag and waste the chance to take some time for yourself. Your social network, friends, family, and neighbors can be of very practical help as well.

15. Dealing with Stress at Work During Pregnancy

Trying to maintain your career, earn enough so you can support your baby, and ensure you have a job to return to after your maternity leave— all while you’re dealing with pregnancy is clearly a major source of stress.

Some workplaces are more supportive of pregnant women than others, and work adjustments, such as cutting hours, different schedules, or different workloads can be arranged.

The reality is that many managers or even your co-workers won’t be able to fully understand why your productivity is lower if you are facing constant morning sickness or you merely have to do more pre-natal check-ups if your pregnancy is at risk.

Since your rights as a pregnant worker are protected, there are safety procedures in place and risk assessments you should call upon.

It is entirely reasonable that you want to continue earning up until your maternity leave, but if you feel that work pressure is making things worse for you, then you should consider your health and your baby’s health first, and take the unpaid leave.

16. Attend Childbirth Classes

If you're a first-time mom, and your pregnancy stress and anxiety are fueled by fear of childbirth and what lies ahead, childbirth courses are a perfect antidote. The knowledge of what to expect in your pregnancy is the best way to fight fear. Childbirth classes can also help you learn practical techniques to control stress and manage pain.

The company of other pregnant women who are facing the same stresses as you are is an additional benefit. They can give you a new outlook on your problems and provide emotional support.

Some childbirth classes also involve your partner in the process, which is ideal for both of you to begin developing as parents and support each other in your new roles.

17. Seek Professional Help

Some extraordinarily stressful and life-changing situations, such as those brought on by natural disasters, the death of someone close to you, or being a victim of a physical or a sexual attack can cause lasting mental health issues in the form of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD).

PTSD can also be brought on by traumatic pregnancy-related experiences, such as loss of a child, traumatic labor, or a previous miscarriage. PTSD while pregnant is a condition that requires professional attention to minimize any harmful impact on your new baby.

Given the specific circumstances of your pregnancy, most mental health professionals will recommend some form of counseling or psychotherapy, but pregnancy-safe medication treatment to help with depression, anxiety, and stress might be needed as well.

Whatever your stress levels and the reasons for your stress, you can take steps to reduce the impact it has. Choose one or two things from the list and work on being more relaxed. And if you need a good cry, have one. It will only be of benefit to you and your baby.

Sources:

[1] Prenatal maternal cortisol concentrations predict neurodevelopment in middle childhood.

Davis EP1, Head K2, Buss C3, Sandman CA4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27771566

[2] The association between psychological stress and miscarriage: A systematic review and meta-analysis

Fan Qu,#1 Yan Wu,#1 Yu-Hang Zhu,#1 John Barry,2 Tao Ding,3 Gianluca Baio,3 Ruth Muscat,4,6 Brenda K. Todd,5 Fang-Fang Wang,1 and Paul J https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5431920/

[3] Water, Hydration and Health

Barry M. Popkin, Kristen E. D’Anci, and Irwin H. Rosenberg

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2908954/

[4] Aquatic-Aerobic Exercise as a Means of Stress Reduction during Pregnancy

Kara Mallory Parker, WHNP, RNC, MS and Sheila A. Smith, RN, PhD, FACCE https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1595134/

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Susana Serer

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      • Susana S profile imageAUTHOR

        Susana Serer 

        12 days ago from UK

        Hi MIebakagh, Women are so different in this respect. Yes libido increases for some women throughout pregnancy. Some have periods of high libido followed by periods of not being interested. And other women have no interest at all. it's a very individual thing.

      • Miebakagh57 profile image

        Miebakagh Fiberesima 

        13 days ago from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA.

        Hello, Susana, I just take an interest to read your article for reading sake. I am male, and my partner and I had ceased childbearing having parent six children: 3 boys and 3 girls. This your story is vital. Everything you said is correct except sex. The desire for sex increase in some partners. For example, when my significant order was three months pregnant, I thought it good to refrain from sex. But I realized the drive for sex in her is potential. I had to give in until she delivered safely.

        Later, I take the time to study the phenomenon. In almost all literature I turn to, sex drive during pregnancy plays a significant role. Even in African traditional religion, it was okayed. My online studies confirmed the norm. So, I think in your next review, you will take to edit the point. Many thanks indeed.

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